Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

Steven Poole has had enough of the “spirit-sapping indignities” of key learnings, synergistic deliverables, and thought leaders who open their kimonos. Well aware that words are weapons, he is fighting back with what he considers the best arsenal at our disposal: scorn. (On this point I’m inclined to agree, having lampooned office jargon for a competition at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.)

Poole’s new book, Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, comprises short, entertaining dissections of office terminology. From the banal (mission, impact) to the ludicrous (boil the ocean, big hairy audacious goal), it runs the gamut of management mumbo-jumbo, metaphor, euphemism, cliché, and assorted BS – language “engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations”.

Poole has a talent for nailing ideas in a few choice words. If you miss the days when people spoke about things instead of around them, you’ll appreciate his withering assessment of this “peculiarly passive-aggressive” construction. Circle back is another “avoidance strategy”, while risk management is “a magical way of pretending you know how to avoid future disaster”. Speaking of magical thinking:

No one just looks at things any more, inside or outside the office. Instead, one must consider ‘how the optics will resonate’. In 1704 Isaac Newton published his work Opticks: or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. The modern business use of optics trades on the term’s heritage in physics to pretend there is some kind of reliable, scientific method to guessing what other people will think about something.

Many of these expressions, like optics, are old, some surprisingly so. Who’d have guessed Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as a thought leader in 1872? OED at hand, Poole traces the origins of contemporary work jargon in ways that illuminate their newer senses. Those of us who chase weekly deadlines, for instance, can be grateful they’re not the lines drawn around a military prison beyond which escapees may be shot.

Steven Poole - who touched base in my thought shower - a treasury of unbearable office jargon - book coverMilitary motifs recur in management speak, as do astronautical and other exciting fields of human activity, the better to make mundane office activity feel more adventurous. The implicit motivation is of course to confer “action man glamour” on desk-scratching behaviour by importing metaphorical uses of words like radar, weaponizing, and strategy – a word whose adoption by universities indicates “widespread despair among dons”.

Taboo bodily functions are also commonly connoted by business jargon. I’m sure there’s a basic mammalian reason for this; in any case it gives Poole the opportunity for some amusing rude jokes. Less amusing is the superstitious avoidance of split infinitives, resulting in the affected-sounding “It is difficult wholly to despise”, “Why are you trying . . . actually to insert”, etc. Maybe that was an editor’s call; its hyperformality sits awkwardly with Poole’s breezily sharp style, which accommodates internet initialisms like OMG and deliberate disfluencies like er and um as a rhetorical device.

In his Dictionary of Weasel Words, Don Watson talks about our leaders and institutions “mugging” us with empty and evasive language. Poole’s treasury neatly sidesteps this assault and offers short but cathartic counterattacks. I liked it most when it replaced gentle mockery with rousing contempt, such as his skewering of that “enforced hallucination” the office team, or his exposé of quality as a smokescreen exploited by corporations in the act of firing people.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? would make a welcome Xmas stocking filler (or a gift to oneself, if you want to cascade some adjacent imagineerings). It’s available from the Guardian Bookshop, Book Depository, or your preferred store, and there’s an extract here if you’d like to sample it first.

Disclosure: Poole and his publisher Sceptre sent me a copy of this book for review.

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12 Responses to Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan, upon reading your book review and some of the entries in the Poole excerpt, I wondered about the (unfamiliar to me) use of the word, task, as a verb and checked online for an explanation. Its first recorded use is from the 14th century as both a noun and a transitive verb; however, I don’t recall hearing “task” used as a verb until I began working for my current employer, a state education agency in the USA. To say that one has been “tasked” to perform a job or function seems so unnatural and redundant. Am I imposing my preferred use of language upon the use of the transitive verb, task?

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this review Stan, I’ve passed on to Daughter who will enjoy. I had to titter at so many nuggets I had to endure for so many years. “Transparency” being one of my favourites, now completely opposite from its original meaning: “Appearing to be transparent” a more accurate definition.
    XO
    WWW

  3. Stan says:

    Vinetta: Tasked may feel unnatural when first encountered – much as any unfamiliar usage can – and the frequency of its historical use makes an interesting curve. Some would consider it a vogue word, but I don’t see anything inherently objectionable about it. I didn’t encounter this tasked until my own experience of corporate lab work, years ago, and it struck me as jargony but useful enough. A lot of new words and phrases are redundant, but that won’t stop them spreading.

    WWW: Laughter is maybe the most effective antidote to the effects of the worst of this jargon. Transparency is a good example, and I’d be tempted to replace your “appearing” with plain old “pretending”. Thanks for passing this on to your daughter.

    • Vinetta Bell says:

      Thanks, Stan! I’m a qualitative researcher in education, working under a nationally known quantitative researcher. Your embedded graph showing the evolved use of the term, “tasked,” is impressive. Thanks!

  4. John Cowan says:

    I have a soft spot for boil the ocean, because I first encountered the phrase in a science fiction novel by Larry Niven, The Ringworld Engineers. The background involves plants called sunflowers, which grow parabolic reflectors (the type used in spotlights) so that en masse they can concentrate sunlight to burn their enemies (anything that moves). Consequently, where sunflowers grow, nothing else can live.

    The hero suspends a target above a field of sunflowers that are covering the shore of a small ocean (not on Earth). There is superconducting wire from the target to the ocean. When the plants focus light and heat on the target, it passes down the wire without heating it and literally does boil the ocean. The resulting clouds of steam cut off sunlight from the sunflowers, killing them. The intelligent beings who live in the ocean are a bit annoyed at his high-handedness (“It is polite to ask before you destroy even part of a home”), but they decide they can live with a warmer ocean with the danger of the sunflowers gone.

    • Stan says:

      John: I hadn’t heard of the phrase before reading Poole’s book, and its ecological implications didn’t exactly win me over. But your story, or rather your account of Niven’s, has made me warm to it a bit.

  5. bevrowe says:

    Mockery of BS nearly always tips over into snobbery. We’re talking about people who have almost certainly had little training or experience in language or writing. Sometimes they use circumlocution to hide their own embarrassment at having to sack people or make them work harder. Sometimes they’re trying to make what they say a bit more interesting and seize on expressions they have heard others use.

    As a journalist, Poole should beware of criticising other professions. Business people mainly use their strange expressions among themselves or at small meetings. Very little real harm is done. Journalists spew their distortions and half truths across outlets read by millions. He should concentrate his attention on how, for example, The Daily Mail uses language to distort the public debate on matters of real importance. That’s a target worthy of his years of being paid to put words together.

    • Stan says:

      Bev: People who talk about “double-loop learning” and “thought showers” tend to have had more or less the same amount of training in language as the rest of us. It’s not as if they have no choice but to adopt evasive and obscure jargon. Ernest Gowers derided circumlocution and pomposity in official language decades ago, but it remains entrenched in that field and in others, including academia and business, and thus warrants continued criticism.
      Poole addressed “distortions and half truths” from politicians and media outlets in his earlier (and more substantial) book Unspeak.

      • bevrowe says:

        I stand corrected about Poole But who do you mean by “the rest of us”? The readers of Sentence first? Obviously not. But let’s say they are people of very ordinary language skills and not very sophisticated training in communication, trying to identify themselves as business people, and talking to people who are expecting that mode of language.

  6. […] not sure I can bring myself to read a whole book about office jargon, management speak, and other abuses of our beautiful language. I’m a fan of plain […]

  7. bharatwrites says:

    Office-speak is painful—’keeping people in the loop’ and ‘following up’ and ‘touching base’ and what not. People stare at simple sentences like alien beings. The number of times people say ‘bottleneck’ is alarming.

    • Stan says:

      Bharat: I’m not a fan of it myself, but having worked in an office/lab environment I know how easily it can become normalised. And once a piece of jargon becomes routine for someone at work, there’s every chance it will slip into their speech in other contexts.

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